Manchester United’s win over Manchester City could well be a watershed moment in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure. It wasn’t a win by fluke. It was a win that gave the impression of being perfect and very well deserved. The stars of the show were Scott McTominay and Fred, even though just about everyone did enough to win a Man of the Match award themselves.
The midfield duo had a spotless performance. Collectively, they won three tackles and four aerial duels. And they completed four dribbles in total. Together, they came up with two key-passes and both came from Fred.
United were playing on the counter-attack against a City side that looks past its prime this season. In the first half, United had five shots on target and a penalty. City couldn’t deal with their pace on the break.
As much as Fred and McTominay deserve every bit of credit, things could have been a lot different in front of a different side. City had 72 percent possession and United had to adapt their style on the basis of theirs. They could sit back, defend and destroy them on the break.
But it was an all too familiar sight for United. The Red Devils are unbeaten against top-six sides this season for that very reason. They can play deep and hit teams on the break. They have enough in their frontline to trouble the opposition defence when they have their backline high up the pitch.
And that is why United’s upcoming games against Everton, Newcastle and Watford will present a bigger challenge. Fred and McTominay will be key to how United play in those games.
In United’s 3-3 draw against Sheffield United, Fred was poor. One can’t blame him for being physically smaller. But against Sheffield’s low block, he was run over by the likes of John Lundstram, Oliver Norwood and John Fleck. He did complete one tackle, completing three interceptions. He also won four aerial duels.
But Fred was dribbled past thrice, failing to play a single key-pass. Against Bournemouth, McTominay could play just one key-pass, even though he did win seven tackles. Both of them lost three in total.
This season, Fred has been playing 1.1 key passes per game. McTominay has played 0.6 key passes per game. United would need more creativity than this to break teams down, in the long run.
Against Newcastle at St.James’ Park, they came up with a single key-pass throughout the game, as United had no creative spark in that midfield. Off the ball, they were okay. But when the Magpies sat deep like any Steve Bruce side will, United looked sluggish and planless.
When Bruce’s men come to Old Trafford, they will be even deeper. They will try to win it smash and grab style – as they did against Southampton this past weekend.
This season, Newcastle have had the lowest average possession per game- 38 percent. Everton on the other hand, beat Chelsea at the weekend with a low-block 4-4-2 shape under Duncan Ferguson. They had 30 percent possession, but they beat the Blues 3-1 at Goodison Park.
At Leicester, new Watford boss Nigel Pearson had the third-lowest average possession per game in the 2014-15 season. It was on his pragmatic principles that the Foxes won the Premier League in the 2015-16 season.
They present very different challenges for United. Those type of challenges that United haven’t got past this season. A lot of it will depend on Paul Pogba and if he returns to fitness or not. But without him, United will struggle to break down defences like that of Newcastle, Ferguson’s Everton or Pearson’s Watford.
If Jesse Lingard thrives in the number ten position, United can still pick the opposition apart. But as things stand, past records are indicative of United not doing well against sides like the ones they face next.